My Yoga Nemesis

My Yoga Nemesis

by Matthew J.X. Malady


People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, librarian Dolly Moehrle tells us more about the yoga nemesis phenomenon.

@ohheygreat @LisaMcIntire I had to stop going to yoga because I developed a nemesis and it ceased being relaxing

— dolly m (@loather) January 25, 2015

Dolly! So what happened here?

The nemesis was an accident, but in retrospect I have a tendency to think of things in terms of competition, so it might have been inevitable for me to look around a room full of other people practicing yoga, reaching inside themselves for inner calm, and find someone whose presence, poise, and perfection annoyed the living shit out of me, and then take that anger at the perfect person to the limit.

Not to start with my childhood, but to start with my childhood, I am the youngest of five, and all of my older siblings were involved in sports in some way, and I very much was not. When I say my siblings were “involved,” I mean in the athletic scholarship, trophies, and letter jackets type of way. And when I say I was not, I mean in the staying-in-my-room-all-day-reading-books sense.

As age has begun to take its toll on my ability to eat pizza for every meal and continue to fit in the same size pants, I tried to learn how to exercise. I tried gyms and running. I tried a “boot camp,” which was a terrible, terrible idea. I turned to yoga. Yoga can be a great workout and has an added bonus of being treated by many practitioners and teachers as not a workout but rather a relaxing, “spiritual” endeavor. I can do relaxing! I can do spiritual! Spending long amounts of time upside down frightens me far less than a weight machine!

I pictured myself emerging from yoga classes glowing with both an internal radiance and a faint sheen of sweat that said “I work out hard, but I’m still feminine.” This yoga-inspired clean living would, I was certain, lead to a macrobiotic diet and developing a bit of a British affectation to my speech; you know, I figured I’d come out of yoga as Gwyneth Paltrow. However, the place I signed up at does hot yoga (but not Bikram), and after every class I emerged covered in sweat, gasping, head throbbing, hair half wet, half dry and rapidly puffing up from the humidity, wondering with great shame if had snored after falling asleep in shavasana. (No matter how hard I tried to stay awake, I regularly passed out in shavasana. I know I snore, so trying to figure out if I had disturbed everyone else’s total relaxation with my sinus problem was a source of further after-class shame.) It is difficult to be a Gwyneth in hot yoga.

As it turns out, I have no natural talent or ability for yoga, just a dogged determination to see through the things I pay for in advance. I spent the first month or two trying to internalize the regular reminders from teachers that “yoga is practice.” Holy shit did I need to practice, but: Yoga is practice! Every time my thighs threatened to give way after spending what felt like hours in Warrior II, every time I pictured collapsing onto my fifteen-dollar yoga mat from Target, I would try to remind myself of the practice aspect. I would look around at the room full of sweating people contorted into ridiculous poses, trying to figure out who felt as awkward, fat, and inflexible as I did, and remind myself: Yoga is practice! Gradually, I got better at it. As I got better at it, I continued looking around the room at other people a lot, because an hour and fifteen minutes without my phone is boring no matter what I’m doing. And that’s when I started noticing the nemesis.

She’s in that age group where she could be thirty-five or forty-five — hey, maybe she’s even pushing fifty — but her face is dignified and refined and adult looking. All her yoga clothes are lululemon, and she’s not only model-thin, but also strong: Her upper arms are toned to perfection. The nemesis wound up in a lot of my classes, so I did a lot of contemplation of her because, again, spending ten minutes in down dog while your teacher talks about life forces can get dull. The thing about the nemesis is, she seems like a perfectly nice lady — we only spoke, blandly, a few times — and a talented practitioner of yoga, and that is why I slowly began to focus a great deal of negativity towards her. She would emerge from class, daintily dabbing her face with a towel, having done all the binds, all the “if you want to go a bit further . . .” intensity poses offered by the teacher, and would go the whole class without having to drop to the mat and take child’s pose for some god-damn relief — and it drove me crazy.

The nemesis was a Gwyneth.

At what point did you realize that this whole thing had gone too far and messed with your ability to experience a fruitful, positive yoga experience? And do you think you’ll ever go back?

Nicole Callahan was saying a nemesis might be “a good source of inspiration,” and, initially, having a nemesis was amazing for my motivation. Though I knew I could never hope to reach the same level of trim, athletic body type, seeing the nemesis be so damn good at everything activated my hyper-competitive mode and I rose to the challenge. At one point I found myself in an extended side angle pose, following the nemesis’s lead as she brought one arm around her back and the other up from under her bent knee, clasping both hands together firmly in a perfect bind, and then I realized I could also clasp my hands together behind me, like some kind of wizard. I deserved a medal.

At a certain point, though, I started having more responsibility at work and missing classes, and then when I did go I felt like all that forward progress I’d made had evaporated and I was back to being Not Very Good At This, and in every class, there was the nemesis, her toned arms, her perfect form, her lululemon. I struggled to interact with other students before and after class, listening to their calm, mindful tones, their enjoyment of the practice. When they went to their mats, they didn’t look around eagerly at how everyone else was doing, and they truly practiced. When I went to my mat, my thoughts and judgment and self-loathing never left me, and I could feel myself glaring at the nemesis. It’s wrong to be using your yoga practice to be channeling hatred, and that’s what I felt myself doing. As my hatred was consuming me, I had a particular class where I was on the floor in shoulder stand, my legs high in the air, my hands on my lower back holding me steady, and I realized the girl next to me was staring at me. When I slowly lowered down, to plough, to deaf man’s pose, to the floor, I looked over at her again, and she said: “You’re really good at that! I couldn’t do it.” This was the kind of praise I had always longed for, but I felt terrible, and knew I was a fraud. All that time I had been in shoulder stand, I kept glancing over at the nemesis who was in a full headstand, a pose I wasn’t able to do. I figured I needed to get the hell out of yoga before I destroyed the experience for other people.

I do like the practice of yoga. And I liked the studio I went to. I might go back at some point, but maybe I’d be better suited to kickboxing? On the other hand, when you do yoga, especially hot yoga, you start to accumulate a lot of specific towels and things like that, so I might go back just because I have all these yoga tops.

Lesson learned (if any)?

You can’t divorce yoga from its roots as a religious and meditative ritual, and spending your practice directing anger and hatred outwards really is counter-intuitive to the process — even if you’re just there for a workout. I suppose I will maybe try not to do hate people with the fire of a thousand dying suns anymore if I do go back.

Just one more thing.

I don’t even like Gwyneth Paltrow.

Photo by Texas A&M;

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